Izzy won't like this but...
Brighton and Crystal Palace fans live the trials of the long-distance supporter
An annual fixture in Sydney sums up the highs and lows of supporting a team on the other side of the world
When I was a kid, my dad’s old mate Attila the Stockbroker came to visit during his tour of Australia. He presented me with some gifts - two plastic blow up sharks which he named Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer, and a kids’ size Brighton and Hove Albion jersey. I often wonder about the influence my dad’s ranty red friend had on me. I grew up listening to his “sharp tongued, social surrealist poetry”, and I wore that Brighton shirt everywhere.
Growing up in Australia, I could never claim to be a diehard Brighton fan, but the latent interest in the Albion led me to find Seagulls Downunder, a supporters group started by Steve Longly in 2010. Like many people in Australia, Steve maintains a strong link to a football club on the other side of the world. To help bring these groups of fans together, Tommy Silver and Lee Sutherland run Football Fans Downunder, an umbrella organisation encompassing over 50 supporters clubs, mostly from Britain. FFDU work with the clubs to organise events, charity days and act as a conduit between the supporters and their clubs overseas.
Steve and his wife came to Australia in 2007 in search of better opportunities for his kids. “Unfortunately it’s been tougher than expected,” he explains. “We’ve struggled to be honest since we’ve been here.” As house prices in the UK plummeted, Steve struggled to find a buyer for his home in Brighton and to find work in Sydney. “I was three weeks to getting on the plane and going home, but I came out to the city and started whacking out business cards everywhere. I got bits and pieces, but it’s not been easy,” says Steve, who now runs his own business repairing doors.
Through the tough times, however, has been the Albion. Like many immigrants to Australia, Steve left behind family, friends, and perhaps most importantly, his football club. Following a non-Premier League club like Brighton from Australia isn’t easy, but this season and the last, Steve is still yet to miss a game. With unreliable internet streams and pay-TV providers, Steve stays awake till the early hours of the morning to listen to the games live. “I’m shattered on the Sunday,” he says with a smile. “People ask, ‘what’s your Premiership club?’ I say, ‘the Premiership? What’s that? The real football is in the Championship.’”
The internet, for Steve, is a paradox. “My two boys would go back home tomorrow,” he says. “They were brought up at the Albion, my boy has been mascot there and everything. I think the biggest problem is social media. They can still see what their friends are doing in the UK. I still see it as well, all my mates get together and go and watch the Albion and I think, ‘that’d be me going to that.’”
Yet it’s through the internet that Steve has made many of his new connections in Australia. “Many people compare the football message board to their local pub,” wrote Ian Plenderleith in When Saturday Comes. “You can meet your mates there to relax, say anything you like, and the next day no one will remember a word.”
For many English expats, this online local pub of Facebook threads and internet message boards has also played a vital link between their home and their adopted country. The Seagulls Downunder Facebook group connects Brighton fans in the antipodes, and over the last few years its membership has grown to include hundreds of supporters from all over Australia and New Zealand. Steve has also made links with Brighton supporters in Australia through the North Stand Chat, a Brighton fans message board.
One of the most active Brighton supporters, Robert Eaton, posted for years from New York on the North Stand Chat under the pseudonym ‘Ricky Marlowe’s Hairpiece’, named after his favourite Brighton player from the 1970s. Eaton worked on the 105th floor of the World Trade Centre, and was one of 3,000 people who lost their lives in the terrorist attacks in 2001.
To honour his memory, Brighton and Crystal Palace supporters in England got together to play a charity football match, putting aside the rivalry to raise money for a team of immigrant kids in Queens, New York. The event has grown to the point where hundreds of thousands of pounds have been raised for the Robert Eaton Memorial Fund, which helps fund youth football programs in Africa, America and England. Although the annual match is for the supporters, former Brighton players Peter Ward, Peter Taylor, Paul Rodgers and Marlowe have lent a hand in recent years.
Last year, Steve decided to organise an equivalent charity match with Crystal Palace fans in Australia. It’s a day to raise some money for the foundation, but also for football fans to come together, have a kick around and imitate their heroes back home. On Saturday, former Brighton players Lloyd Owusu and Paul Reid both turned out for Seagulls Downunder, which was a massive thrill for both sides. After Reid scores the first goal, the referee sidles up to ask me “that is the Paul Reid, yeah?”
Both Owusu and Reid speak fondly of their time at Brighton, and how much they enjoyed the family aspect of the club. “I was massively sad to leave,” says Owusu, who helped Brighton survive relegation during his two month stint, and now plays for Hakoah Sydney. “I believed what I’d done with the club with them staying up. With them going into a new stadium I wanted to part of that! I never regret anything, but I do miss it at Brighton. We had a real bond there.”
When Owusu collapses with more than a little exaggeration inside the box in the second half, both sets of players laugh as one of the Palace players yells “leave that for the swimming pool, Lloyd!” I’m waiting for someone to mimic the BBC radio commentator, Peter Jones, and yell “and Steve must score!” as Steve lines up the resulting penalty, but nobody does, and he slots it home to put Seagulls Downunder 2-1 up. The match finishes 4-2 in favour of the Brighton fans.
“I reckon a match like this would kick-off back home,” says Paul Shelley, a Palace fan who has lived in Australia for over 30 years. Paul believes the distance allows Brighton and Palace fans to put aside the rivalry and simply enjoy the football.
The match is played at the Wanderers field at the Kings School in Parramatta, one of the most exclusive private schools in Australia, and the surface is immaculate. It’s only possible thanks to John Sowden, a Brighton fan who is the head of mathematics at Kings. John met Steve while Steve was repairing doors at the school, and noticed that he had a similar accent. Before long they were chatting about the Albion, and a friendship was established. “We talked and talked and talked and Steve put it to me that they’d like to play the charity match here,” explains John. “I put it to my sportsmaster and he said ‘no problem at all.’”
John moved here in 1986, and hasn’t been back to Brighton since. “I felt the pain,” he tells me. “I went to see my first Brighton game in 1964 when I was seven. I grew up on the east terrace at the Goldstone [Ground]. It was tough being in Australia. I kept in touch with the club and just followed from afar. It was really hard; it wasn’t on the television.”
Like John, Martin Bowles was forced to watch from the other side of the world as the former chairman sold the historic Goldstone Ground to property developers. In 1997, Martin jumped on a plane and flew back home for the final game.
“Suddenly it sort of hit me what was going to happen to our ground,” Martin explains. “I used to go down every week with my uncle, it was part of my childhood. They played the Last Post and it was just so sad. At that time we had to win to stay in the league, and we did win so it was a real mix of emotions because we were really happy at the end of the day.”
Martin took bits and pieces of the Goldstone Ground with him back to Australia, where his son is growing to love the Albion just as he does. However, distance has made the site of the Goldstone Ground, which is now a shopping centre, a kind of phantom limb for Martin.
“It’s surreal, even when I go back now I go around the corner to the Hove Park Tavern at the top of Sackville Road. You look down and I expect to see the floodlights there, and the North Stand. Because I moved to Australia and I didn’t really see it get trashed it feels like it should be still there.
“When I first moved out here I used to get the results on the Monday off the fax machine. Everything’s changed with the internet. Steve came into my life via a post he made on North Stand Chat, and honestly, it’s changed my life.”
Similarly, the Crystal Palace fans have used the internet to establish connections in Australia. Sean Tarrant, 24, arrived in Australia just a few months ago to get away from the daily grind of working in London. “I came out here on my own,” he tells me. “The first thing I thought was how the hell am I going to make friends out here? I went online and found that Palace fans were meeting to watch a game, so I got in contact and went down to meet them at the pub.
“Once you meet a Palace fan you get comfortable straight away. As soon as you ask someone if they watch football and they say no, well, the conversation gets a bit harder. I could talk about Palace for hours, and it’s good to have other people who know what they’re on about.”
Sean is settled now, and says he’ll start supporting Western Sydney Wanderers. Former Crystal Palace defender, Tony Popovic, is the coach of the Wanderers, and that provides Sean with a crucial link to the local football scene.
For both sets of fans, this charity game is an opportunity to pay homage to Eaton, a fellow supporter who, just like them, took his love of his football club to a new home on the other side of the world. “When it comes to football my heart’s still in south London,” says Paul Shelley, “but I want to live in Sydney for the rest of my life.”
“I think it’s pretty amazing really that there are fans over in Australia who still get together and support their team,” says Reid. “To be honest, as a young kid I always dreamed of playing in England because you could see that culture.
“Steve told me this match was going ahead three months ago and it went straight into my calendar. It’s fun, you know obviously we want to beat Palace but that’s not the main thing. It’s just to get everyone together.”